How many parallels are there between an immigrant and a superhero? To start, both often come from two different worlds. Both often have a given name, and then perhaps the name they’ve taken on to blend in. And, arguably above all, both embody two different identities blended into one person.
These similarities have long been observed by Gene Luen Yang in his career as a writer and illustrator for comics.
“It’s one of the reasons I’m a superhero fan. Because of that dual identity at the heart of so many superhero stories. It’s something I felt I lived,” Yang explained. “Even if I wasn’t conscious of it as a kid, I was drawn to the idea that somebody could live between two different identities [from] two different worlds.”
Alongside co-creator and artist Bernard Chang, Yang explores this duality with the Monkey Prince, the newest Asian American superhero in the DC Universe. The character draws inspiration from the famous Chinese mythological character the Monkey King, tales of which were told to Yang, Chang, and others in their youth as bedtime stories.
Yang explained that the Monkey Prince is an Asian American character with an identity wedged between the American superheroes that we know and the realm of Chinese mythology.
The hero debuted in DC Festival of Heroes: The Asian Superhero Celebration, a DC anthology released to celebrate beloved Asian and Asian American characters. The 96-page book features stories around Shoes, Catwoman’s protégé; Cassandra Cain, DC’s iconic Asian Batgirl; and Tai Pham, the Vietnamese American Green Lantern.
Having so many AAPI characters should come as no surprise to fans of comics, Chang said.
“Comic books in America are probably the one entertainment medium that has the most Asian Americans working as creators,” he elaborated, citing Jim Lee, DC’s Chief Creative Officer and Publisher as living proof of that. “What other medium can you say that the absolute icon of an industry is an Asian American?”
Of course, despite this, the significance of DC Festival of Heroes and the Monkey Prince’s inclusion should not be understated. As Yang explained, this anthology about Asian American heroes created by Asian American creators “would have been unimaginable even five years ago.”
“I feel so incredibly blessed to be a part of this. I think it points to the fact that there is a space [and need] for all sorts of different American comics.” he shared.
Modernizing the myth: Creating an original take on the legendary character
To create an original character who could stand side-by-side DC’s roster of iconic characters (and perhaps even go head-to-head against in future clashes), Yang and Chang drew deep from their own respective heritage and folklore.
If you aren’t already familiar, the Monkey King is one of the main characters in the Chinese novel, Journey to the West, which dates back to the 16th century. Mischievous and powerful, the Monkey King and his exploits have been told and retold in both folklore and modern pop culture through generations.
“As both superhero fans and Monkey King fans, we’ve always seen these overlaps between these two heroic storytelling traditions,” Yang said. “To explore that overlap within the DC Universe proper, it’s a bucket list project for everyone involved.”
In their take on the classic, Yang and Chang imagined Marcus the Monkey Prince as the son of the Monkey King. In the anthology, the reader follows Marcus as he learns to navigate his powers, identity, and place as a hero among DC’s cast of characters.
The challenge, Chang explained, was to incorporate the history and multiple variations of the Monkey King myth while compressing it down into a character that would fit alongside DC’s finest heroes.
Much of this history is incorporated into the Monkey Prince’s costume, which pays homage to the original fable and character of the Monkey King. For one, the emblem on his chest, a striking “M” in the vein of Superman’s “S” crest and Batman’s bat symbol, symbolizes Flower Fruit Mountain, the birthplace of the original Monkey King. Observant readers will also appreciate the clouds in the armour design that are remarkably similar to the clouds that served as vehicles in the Monkey King’s original tales.
In addition, many of the Monkey King’s core values also live on in Marcus, the Monkey Prince. As Chang described: “[The Monkey Prince] is a rebel at heart. He goes to defy orders, defy the gods, and he does what he wants and he walks his own path. He’s extremely loyal to his friends and family.”
“Here is an actual Asian American character who is caught between two worlds. He’s caught between the world of Chinese mythology and the world of American superheroes.” Yang shared.
More than a background character
DC’s debut of the Monkey Prince and the publication of DC Festival of Heroes was to celebrate AAPI Heritage Month in May, but it also arrives amid the rising number of reported attacks on the Asian community, spurred by racism and xenophobia that has simmered since the start of the pandemic.
While the Monkey Prince exists solely in the DC Universe, his presence as a real-world, Asian American character is something that their creators believe can combat anti-Asian hate in our everyday lives. As Yang explained, much of the violence against the community is rooted in the dehumanization of Asians.
“I think that we’re seen as all the same; we’re like cardboard cutouts. We’re like the background characters of a story. [With] background characters, it doesn’t matter. Nobody cares if they die,” he said.
“By creating Asian American heroes within the DC Universe — three dimensional characters that can support their own stories — that’s our way as storytellers to combat [the dehumanization of Asians].”
For Chang, bucking the model minority myth is where Asian American creators and readers alike can fight against the hate.
“When you want to have discussions about how we can stand up to this recent wave of crime and prejudice, which has been here since I moved in and came to America, we have to be authentic and take risks and chances, and we have to pave our own path.” he shared.
“For too long, we’ve just been trying to fit in. Part of that conformity breeds this level of dehumanization. I would say eff [conformity]. Be yourself. By paving our own path, we can stand together and not rely on being quiet or dismissive. Eff that.”
More importantly, Chang emphasized that each person is in a position to make a difference in supporting the AAPI community. As he described, it can be something as complex as organizing fundraisers to provide whistles for elders, or an action as simple as buying a copy of DC Festival of Heroes: The Asian Superhero Celebration to introduce a friend to the cornucopia of AAPI heroes.
“If you sit back and do nothing, then nothing will happen. We each need to do our part,” he said.
Making Asian American media
We believe that our stories matter – and we hope you do too. Support us with a monthly contribution to help ensure stories for us and by us are here to stay.